The 2017 Conference of the Modern Language Association: Notes from Underground

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center

I’ve attended the conference of the Modern Language Association most years since I arrived at BYU in 2000. I thought I might take off this year’s conference (held in Philadelphia), but then decided late in the game to attend, after all. Why? Because, for all its excesses and clear signs of decay (with shrinking numbers of attendees, a disappearing job interview scene, etc.), MLA remains one of the best places to get a bead on what’s “going on” in the humanities, particularly in literary studies. And, with an eye to future Humanities Center guests and initiatives, I thought I would take notes on as many of the “it” panels as I possibly could.

What follows is random commentary on just a few of these panels. I’m calling these my “notes from underground” because I had no real place at the conference: I wasn’t interviewing or being interviewed; I wasn’t speaking or chairing a panel. I was interloping, listening — and, here, commenting. The numbers before the panel titles are those listed in the MLA program.


Panel 57. Antitheory


Here’s how the conference program billed this session: “What is antitheory? What does it mean to be against theory in the new millennium? Panelists address the current state of posttheory, the alleged deaths of theory, and the critique of critique.” Happily, nobody on the panel believed that theory is “dead,” though everybody also recognized a sea change in modern thought.

Good point #1 (Christian Haines, Dartmouth): Over the past few years, theory seems to have moved from critical skepticism to a new positivism (effectively shifting the center of gravity from, say, deconstruction to something like Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory).

Good point #2 (Jeffrey Nealon, Penn State): The obsession with social constructionism is giving way to a new obsession with realism. Hence, we seem to be entering an era of “post-signs.”

Comment: Antitheory does not represent the entire breadth of theory, by any means, but it does register a widely felt impatience with “old” theory and a genuine fascination with what an “old” theorist like Lacan called the Real. And what that means for literary studies probably entails a greater interest and/or implication in the physical sciences.


Panel 109. Memory Studies and the Anthropocene


The panel organizer, Stef Craps (Ghent University), gave a useful four-stage account of memory studies. Interests in collective memory (fueled by the early twentieth-century sociologist Maurice Halbwachs) shifted with Pierre Nora to “places of memory.” Eventually, these “places” inspired an interest in the migratory, transnational flows of memory. But all that is giving way, today, to an obsession with the Anthropocene, an epoch that is structurally unlike the others for it portends the eradication of precisely the kinds of futures on which eventual memories are predicated.

Jennifer Wenzel (Columbian University) may have made the most poignant observation in the panel. Instead of Europe providing an image of the future of all nations – the traditional assumption in theories of progress – the future will involve the reconfiguration of the planet into a massive third world nation, incorporating even advanced industrialized and globalized Western powers.


Panel 227. Presidential Plenary: Boundary Conditions


Four distinguished panelists spoke, among them Homi Bhabha, Viet Nguyen (recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel), and Rita Felski (far and away the most frequently invoked scholar at the conference, and our Humanities Center guest next month). Bhabha spoke about the ethical challenge of earning one’s death, and Nguyen spoke about the breakthrough he experienced as a writer when he learned to embrace inhumanity as well as humanity – in himself and in others. Felski spoke about some of the issues she raises in her book, The Limits of Critique, which we’ll discuss with her the morning of February 3rd.

But one of the most provocative points was made by Dan Edelstein, professor of French at Stanford. He spoke of the impact “distant reading” (Franco Moretti’s term for quantitative, computer-assisted literary analysis) is having on close reading – changing the very way we read, whether we engage in quantitative analysis or not.

Comment: This panel was titled “boundary conditions” but it seemed to have more to do with conditions than boundaries. And that seems at once fitting and strange. On the one hand, there is more energy in the field – more new gray matter – being expended on what “we” “are” – on “conditions,” therefore – than on boundaries, a subject that seems a little more suited to identities than ontologies (and to the 1990s, then, than to the present). On the other hand, the global refugee crisis is stoking all kinds of new concerns about boundaries, borders, lines of demarcation …


  1. A Literature That Thinks: On the Agency of Literary Objects


This panel really knew how to sell itself: “It is becoming increasingly apparent that the question of textual agency has become the key issue in the postcritical turn.” The room was packed with grad students and assistant professors – and Deidre Lynch, a distinguished long nineteenth centuryist at Harvard, and a Humanities Center guest of ours later this semester. (She seemed to be there to support a young colleague who was one of the presenters. What was my excuse, you may ask?) Deidre and I sat by each other, whispering occasional remarks about the panel (wondering, for example, why only one of the panelists even thought to define agency). She left probably twenty minutes early, saying she’d had enough of the “glib scientism” of one of the presenters. I followed suit maybe five minutes later. Presumably, the grad students all stayed.

I’ll admit, I was bored by this, “the key issue in the postcritical turn,” though I can’t profess to feeling superior on that basis – wiser, more knowing, more been-there-done-that. Instead, I felt, I don’t know … old.


  1. Why Teach Literature?


This panel is an annual institution at MLA. Distinguished scholars share their perspectives and, sometimes, their personal narratives. This year’s panelists: Emily Apter (NYU), Michael Bérubé (Penn State; former president of MLA), and Heather Dubrow (Fordham, and a guest at BYU for the conference organized by Kim Johnson in November 2014). This year’s panel chair: Gaurav Desai (Michigan, and another former guest of our Humanities Center). Good talks (especially Dubrow’s), good discussion afterward – but let’s just say the question remains unanswered.

Comment: The discussion confirmed one bias, which is that arguments that the humanities are valuable primarily because they teach critical thinking and/or get people jobs feel, and fall, flat. Don’t people crave something more, like meaning or transformation or a sense of transport or a heightened capacity for feeling – or at least an alleviation of boredom? (But don’t I vaguely recollect once believing in the all-encompassing virtues and the heart-stopping ecstasy of critical thinking? Ugh, what a painful recollection – hopefully inflated in memory. If it isn’t, if I was that guy, how many students must I have unwittingly lobotomized my first few years at BYU?)


  1. Is Literarity a Thing?


Alright, now I felt really old. Because I walked into the room and saw, seated at the table, four distinguished (and, call it for what it is, older) men. And I already thought the topic had kind of a retro quality about it. Adding to the indignity, I loved this panel. The speakers – Alan Singer (Temple), Richard Eldridge (Swarthore), and R. M. Berry (Florida State) – offered thoughtful and poignant reflections on what literature is and why it matters. (Am I sure this wasn’t the “Why Teach Literature?” session? Did I read the program correctly?)

A few takeaways:

  • The literary represents a sense of human potentiality before it represents an understanding of the form(s) such potential will take. The literary is therefore about what makes us human, and not just about how humans make literature.
  • The literary, as a category irreducible to particular literary forms, incites feelings of strangeness, opacity, enchantment, etc. (Here, the speaker cited Simon Gikandi and – as everyone else at the conference was doing – Rita Felski).
  • The literary allows us to live actively, orient ourselves, and believe in our own lives.
  • The most urgent question facing us in literary studies today – given our sociological, technological, political, and existential complexities – concerns the use of literature in human life (if there is any such use).


  1. Moods of Criticism: Theatrical, Humorless, Prurient, Susceptible, Alacritous


This panel featured some excellent writing around popcorn ideas (light and airy and ultimately a little unsatisfying). The mood nobody mentioned, but was seemingly on all minds, was paranoia – the critical mode against which Felski (who, ubiquitous at the conference, also chaired this session) writes.

But while the panel didn’t yield for me many grand ideas about mood, Lauren Berlant, a distinguished scholar at the University of Chicago and one of the editors of Critical Inquiry (probably the leading theory journal), shared a couple great insights about scholarly writing.

  • Most good criticism attempts to engage its objects just enough to say something definitive about them even as one opens these objects up to a depth of association that surpasses the critic’s full understanding.
  • Our natural tendency is to close rather than open ourselves, and this impairs our capacity to think and write. As a reader of manuscripts, then, Berlant sees it as her task to help writers get out of their own way.


  1. Critique and Its Limits


Two fine speakers, Sandra Gustafson (Notre Dame) and Amanda Anderson (Brown; she also runs seminars regularly at the Cornell School of Criticism and Theory), made for a really fine panel. Anderson’s talk was especially compelling. She observed that the humanities today tend to operate somewhere between critique and ethos. Those who tend toward critique tend to borrow an argumentative style inflected by the social sciences (evident, for example, in cases advocating the value of the humanities). The scholar to whom Anderson repeatedly returned here is Christopher Newfield, a harsh critic of the downward spiral of modern universities, but someone who believes in the regenerative potential of a vibrant humanities. Meanwhile, scholars who tend toward ethos generally attend to humanities disciplines and practices, and to new ways to imagine how and why literature compels us, and what it can do. The two scholars Anderson cited as emblematic of this tendency are Caroline Levine and Rita Felski.


I attended several other panels, but I close here with Anderson’s observations. For one thing, Anderson is famously discerning about the threads running through literary studies, particularly literary theory. And to say that we’re between “critique” and “ethos” – between efforts to connect the humanities to the public good and introspective engagements of the state of the field – seems as good an assessment as any of where “we” are, we brave and/or befuddled humanists.

And then, it’s hard not to appreciate the scholars she places at the field’s forefront: Newfield, Levine, Felski – all past or imminent guests of our Humanities Center. 2017 is shaping up to be a strange and uncertain year on several global, national, and professional stages. But we’re fortunate in our college: whatever may be coming our way, at least in terms of our profession, we seem to enjoy a pretty privileged vantage point.


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